Tales From Munich : Part Two – Arms Were Linked

Bayern Munich vs. Chelsea : 19 May 2012.

The walk to the Allianz Arena on the evening of Saturday 19th. May 2012 probably took around fifteen minutes. At the start, we were together as a group, but occasionally we splintered away to talk to a few fellow fans, faces from home, as we marched north. I spotted many fans – of both teams – holding rather pathetic looking home-made cards with phrases such as “Need Ticket Please” on them. I brushed past them, feeling no guilt. There were Chelsea fans singing still. Bayern were relatively quiet. I then realised that most of the Bayern support was probably already within the stadium a few hundred yards away.

Onwards we marched. Glenn was still struggling with the basic concept of putting one foot in front of the other and he occasionally lurched and swayed to the left and right. It was time for me to have words with him. In the absence of an adjacent naughty step, I grabbed him by the arm and read him the riot act. I had visions of him being pulled at the gate by an over-zealous policeman.

“Listen mate, sober up. We’ve come this far. You have your ticket. Don’t fcuk it up at the last minute.”

Not every Chelsea fan was in colours. Amongst our little group, only the John Bumstead T-shirt being worn by Daryl and the black and orange Chelsea gear being worn by Gal gave a clue to our allegiance. Elsewhere there was the usual smattering of new Chelsea shirts, current Chelsea shirts, old Chelsea shirts and retro Chelsea shirts. Packs of lads without colours – typically the faces I see at most away games – were similarly attired as us. The forty-something dress code of trainers, jeans, polo shirts, designer tops and occasional baseball caps. Most Bayern fans were wearing replica shirts, though an alien from another planet might have been bemused by the obvious variety of colour schemes adopted by Bayern over the years. I always think of the classic Bayern team of the mid-seventies – Maier, Breitner, Beckenbauer, Muller – wearing the all red Adidas kit. This is how it stayed for years until the design gurus at Bayern decided to foist all sorts of strange designs on FC Hollywood’s fan base. The first bizarre kit to appear featured a red and blue striped shirt and I think this was a nod to the blue of the Bavarian flag. For a connoisseur of football kits like me, this was a bizarre choice. Since then, Bayern have had a variety of kits and even special Champions League variations. Some of the most recent variants have been red and black shirts and also red and white hooped shirts.

It made me wonder what Adidas have in store for us.

I spotted Dutch Mick and shouted across the grass verge. He was wearing the new shirt and I wondered if Chelsea would do the same for this last game of the season. We wore a new shirt in Moscow remember; I didn’t want us to follow suit.

Callum raced past and we shook hands. He was buzzing and said something to the effect of “the night is ours.”

As we neared the stadium, I heard Alan talk to Cathy and so I reeled around and had a very quick word while Alan took our photograph.

“It’s a long way from the Rum Jungle, Cath.”

I had enjoyed Cathy’s company in Kuala Lumpur way back in July on our Asia tour. Of course, in reality, it seemed like last week. These football seasons certainly race by.

Ahead, a young lad was perched on his father’s shoulders, and they were carrying a fifteen foot pole, bending under the weight of a large St. George’s Cross flag, with two smaller chequered Chelsea ones above and below. I took an iconic photograph of them with the pristine white of the stadium now only fifty yards or so away in the background. It was a defiant statement of intent and captured the mood precisely.

This was the ultimate away game. Let me run through some numbers. Here we were, an English team in Germany; plenty of history there. This was arguably our biggest game ever in 107 years. It was supposedly a neutral venue but fate had conspired for this to take place in the home stadium of our opponents. Sure, we took around 25,000 to the Rasunda Stadium in Stockholm in 1998. Sure we took 25,000 to Old Trafford for the 2006 F.A. Cup semi-final against Liverpool. We have taken similar numbers to Cup Finals at Wembley. But, despite the folly of a neutral venue, make no mistake; this was an away game. This was our biggest ever show of strength for an away game since we swamped Highbury in August 1984, when close on 20,000 squeezed into the Tick Tock and hundreds more took residence in the home stands. In addition to the 17,500 in the stadium, Munich was being swelled to the tune of an extra 10,000, maybe 15,000, maybe 20,000 auxiliaries. We were a Chelsea army in Germany for the biggest prize in World football.

In 107 years, there has never been an away game like it and perhaps there never will.

The Allianz Arena stands at the northern end of a ridge of land, bordered by train lines and autobahns. Access is only at the southern end; the Bayern end. We hurriedly entered at the gate – there was a minimal search and I immediately rued my decision to leave my trusty zoom lens at home. We were in. I hugged Glenn and then began the short walk up to the Nord Kurv. I stopped to take a photo of the setting sun, disappearing behind clouds to the west.

Daryl stopped to have the quickest of chats with Terry, who was originally going to be sat alongside us, but had since wangled a seat in the press box. Terry is one of Chelsea’s iconic names from a distant past. I last saw him in Moscow.

We aimed for the gate to section 341. It was now 8.30pm and kick-off was but fifteen minutes away. There was a long ascent up a hundred or more stairs; these wrap themselves around the stadium but are hidden from view by the translucent plastic shell which gives the stadium its unique identity. My limbs were aching by the time I had reached the upper level. Behind me, several Chelsea fans were singing about Auschwitz. Ahead of me, I battled the crowds to force my way into the concourse and then the gents’ toilets.

An incoming text at 8.33pm – “atmosphere?”

I replied – “still not in yet. Typical Chelsea.”

And this was typical Chelsea. We are so used to leaving it late at home games – the ubiquitous mantra of “one more pint” was made for the pubs which envelope Stamford Bridge – and here we were, leaving it late in Munich.

Typical Chelsea.

I quickly found my way to my seat as the home fans were unfurling their impressive banner of the Champions League trophy in the Sud Kurv. Their end was a riot of red. In row 10, there was a nasty altercation between Glenn and a fellow Chelsea fan and I had to act as peacemaker. A few words were exchanged. The plan was for Glenn to sit alongside Alan and myself, but Glenn – still wobbly with alcohol – was despatched to the other end of our row. Although Daryl bought tickets for ten of us, such is the ineptitude within the Chelsea box office, Simon and Milo’s tickets were not with the rest of ours.

Blue flags were waiting at our seats and the Champions League anthem was echoing around the stadium.

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From the left; Alan, Glenn, Gary, Daryl, Neil, Ed, Chris.

The magnificent seven.

Simon and Milo was ten yards behind us. Callum and Dunc were spotted. Dutch Mick too.

In the rush to get ourselves inside, hardly a thought had been paid to the game. The rumours were true; Ryan Bertrand was playing out wide. I immediately thought back to Danny Granville at Stockholm in 1998. Clearly, di Matteo was taking a risk on the youngster but I did not have time to dwell on this. Thank heavens the two centre-backs were playing.

So, what were my thoughts as kick-off approached? There was no doubt that we had reached the final due to a healthy share of luck, especially against Barcelona when woodwork and a missed penalty aided our formidable rear guard performance. I was in no doubts that this luck could easily run out – if only due to the laws of probability – and I can remember quietly warning Gary in that serene Munich beer garden that “you do realise we could get thumped here?” He was in agreement.

And yet. And yet there was a positive air in the Chelsea end. In the back of my mind, there was unrelenting belief that – yes – despite the odds, or maybe because of them, we would prevail in this most hostile of situations. In our 107 years, there has never been a more unlikely story than our assault on this magical trophy. A team in disarray in early March, a team in decay, a team divided, now only ninety minutes from glory.

Without time to dwell, the teams appeared down below me and I spent a few minutes trying my best to juggle photos, texts and songs of support. It will surprise nobody to know that I had no plans to sit. In Moscow, I had stood for – what was it? – six hours, from bar to tube to stadium, to game, to bus. I envisioned the same in Munich.

The scene was set. The stadium seemed huge and yet compact at the same time. I was a fan. The cool grey concrete steps of the concourse and the aisles were mirrored by a similar colour for the seats. If only Wembley had decided on something similar – a cool cream maybe – rather than a brash ugly red. The Chelsea end was keen to cheer the boys on but I knew we would be in for a tough battle to be heard over the tumultuous support being handed out by the Bayern faithful. I spotted pockets of Chelsea blue in the lower tier to my left, but the neutral areas were predominantly red. There were three rows of unused seats in front of the line of TV studios in the east stand. To my right, I noted a ridiculous number of seats in the press box; maybe 3,000 strong. This was a sure sign that football was eating itself. Elsewhere in this lovely city, 100,000 fans were without tickets yet 3,000 seats were being used by gentlemen of the press. Beyond, in the corporate areas of the stadium, pink and yellow lights were shining in the many restaurants and suites. The blades of a solitary wind turbine, high on a hill, were able to be seen in the thin slither of sky. Bayern flags hung on every square inch of balcony. Chelsea flags countered.

I quickly spotted one which is often seen, away to my right –

“If I Had Two Lives I’d Give Them Both To You. Forever Chelsea.”

The 2012 Champions League Final began.

It was clear from the first few moments of play that Bayern were going to have most of the possession. It was galling to see Arjen Robben having so much of the ball. There was a consensus when he left Chelsea in the summer of 2007 that, due to his glass ankles, we had seen the best of him. Would he now have the last laugh? I feared the worst. Ribery, of course, was the other major threat and it was clear to me that the game may well be won or lost in the wide areas. It was key for Kalou and Bosingwa on the right and Bertrand and Cole on the left to close space. I soon realised, and it shames me to admit it, that I was not au fait with many of the Bayern players. The wide men Robben and Ribery, Gomez, Schweinsteiger, Nauer, Lahm, Boeteng…who were the others? I had little idea.

At least I was in control. Unlike Barcelona, fuzzy through alcohol, I was able to take everything in. It was my biggest fear that I would be drunk beyond words in Munich, unable to play a significant role in supporting the boys. Despite many beers in the afternoon, I was fine…it had been perfect. I looked over several times to check on Glenn; phew, he was still standing, not slumped in his seat.

Bayern dominated the first half with only rare advances by Chelsea into the Bayern defence. In truth, we were playing a wholly subservient role in this game. Our plan was of containment. Wayward shots from a number of Bayern players rained in on Petr Cech’s goal and I began wondering if our luck was going to hold out once more. The first “heart in the mouth” chance fell to Robben way down below, but Cech managed to deflect his shot onto the woodwork for a corner. Bosingwa then fluffed an easy clearance, only for the spinning ball to end up in an area devoid of red-shirted attackers. Lady Luck was in the building and sporting Chelsea colours.

All eyes were on the clock.

15 minutes.

30 minutes.

In a rare attack – our best of the game – the ball was worked to Salomon Kalou, but his shot hardly tested Nauer at the near post.

In the closing minutes of the first period, a Bayern chant petered out, but its familiar melody was picked up by the Chelsea hordes.

“Oh Dennis Wise
Scored A Fcuking Great Goal.
In The San Siro.
With Ten Minutes To Go.”

It was easily our loudest chant of the evening and I was comforted that we, as fans, could impact upon the night’s atmosphere.

A text from the US confirmed this –

“Heard the Dennis Wise song loud and clear on the TV coverage in the US!”

Just before the teams re-entered after the break, around ten red flares were let off in the top tier of the Bayern end. It was an impressive sight for sure. The smoke drifted to the east, then hung in the air for ages. The second half told a similar story. Tons of Bayern possession with Chelsea players – all defenders now – scurrying around and closing space. I was particularly enamoured with Mikel, whose stature rises with each big match appearance. Elsewhere, Cahill, Cole and Lampard were magnificent. Luiz caused me a few worries. Bosingwa had his moments too. Juan Mata, the one midfielder who had the tools to unlock any defence, was struggling. Didier Drogba’s main job was to continually head away corner after corner; a job he has done so well in these last eight amazing seasons.

Ribery’s goal was flagged for offside and thankfully I wasn’t perturbed. What is the German for “calm down?” Bayern shots rained in on our goal, but our brave defenders threw themselves at the ball and blocks were made.

60 minutes.

Bayern’s support was now getting frustrated at the quality of their finishing and the Chelsea support grew and grew. Songs of old rolled around the three tiers of the Nord Kurv. I was heartened by the noise. It clearly galvanised the team. Still Bayern shots missed the target. Was I the only one thinking that a force field had been set up around Cech’s goal frame?

Ryan Bertrand, non-existent offensively, gave way for the much-maligned Florent Malouda. We stood and watched. We sung. We hoped. A few half-chances way down below gave us renewed sustenance. The songs continued. I was so proud of our support.

On 83 minutes, our world collapsed. A cross from the left and a leaping Bayern player – Muller, a name from the glory years –out jumped our defenders. In one of those moments that happens in football, time seemed to slow to a different speed. The ball bounced down. The ball bounced up. The ball flew past a confused Cech. The ball hit the underside of the crossbar.

The ball was in.

The previously quiet Sud Kurv bellowed and roared. It was a horrendous sight. We stood silent. What could we do? The PA announcer then, shamefully in my opinion, announced the scorer to the spectators in a rousing tirade which seemed to last for ever. For a supposedly neutral venue, I thought this was a poor show…he ended his belligerent outburst with the word “Thomas…”

…and the Bayern fans responded “Muller!”

That sickened me almost as much as the goal.

We were losing 1-0 and Lady Luck had seemed to have packed up her belongings in a suitcase and was heading out of town. My thoughts were of sadness; that this iconic Chelsea team, forged under Ranieri, fine-tuned under Mourinho, cajoled by many managers since, were now going to disband over the summer without that most desired of prizes, a Champions League victory. For this, make no mistake, was their – our – last chance. There would be no return for a while. I sighed.

Callum – you were wrong mate and I was foolish enough to believe you.

Immediately, di Matteo replaced the ineffective Kalou with Fernando Torres.

Torres, with a thousand points to prove despite his goal in Barcelona, seemed to inspire us. His darting movements breathed new life into our attack. In turn, the Chelsea support responded. It was his endeavour down in the corner which gave us a corner. It was our first of the entire game. Juan Mata trotted over to collect the ball. I lifted my trusted camera from around my chest and zoomed in as best I could. I held the camera still – constantly focused, the button half-depressed – and waited for the corner. I looked up and trusted that my camera would do its job.

88 minutes had been played. This was it, Chelsea.

Death or glory.

Juan Mata blazed the ball in towards the near post. In a moment that will live with me forever, two players in blue rose to meet the ball.

I clicked.

The ball cannoned into Nauer but then flew into the roof of the net.

The Nord Kurv thundered. I clenched my fists and roared from deep inside my body. Tears of joy soon started flowing. We were back in it.

Chelsea – I fcuking love you.

I was soon aware that my glasses had flown off and so I tried to steady myself and search for them, but I felt my head spinning, imploding with joy. I feared a blackout. It happened when Torres scored his first goal last season. Steady Chris, steady.

I tried my best to find my glasses – but they were gone.

The Chelsea fans were yelling, shouting, clambering onto seats, pointing. I looked down and in to the row in front. There, miraculously perched on a seat, were my glasses. I reached down to retrieve them just before a lad stepped on them.

Six seats away, Alan had smashed his sunglasses at this moment. There was carnage in the Chelsea end, but devastation in the Bayern end.

Advantage Chelsea. Bayern had already taken off Muller. The home fans were on the ropes. We were going to do this.

We were going to win.

My head was still spinning, the Chelsea end was buzzing, my world was perfect.

In the short period of time before the extra period of thirty minutes began, we roused the team by singing “The Blue Flag.”

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Our confidence took a battering soon into the first period of extra time when Didier Drogba, back defending, tripped Franck Ribery inside the box.

Oh Didier.

I just turned my back to the game and sighed. This was virtually a carbon copy of the penalty he gave away in Barcelona. Didier messed up our chance in Moscow. He redeemed himself in Munich. And now this.

We stood and hoped. Cech looked large and impressive. Robben approached the penalty spot. I wasn’t sure if I should tempt fate by taking a photograph of a potentially match-losing moment.

What the hell.

Robben shot.

I clicked.

Cech saved, then gathered the loose ball.

Destiny.

It was going to be our night.

Much to our joy, Ribery was substituted. Good work Didier, I take it all back.

The rest of the period of extra time was truly a blur, though. Torres had a few runs at the Bayern defence. Luiz and Cahill miraculously held out. Our players were strong. As the minutes ticked, I was happy for the game to be decided on penalties.

My main reasons were probability and destiny.

We lost on penalties in Moscow.

We’ll win on penalties in Munich.

It’s our night.

Simple as that.

We weren’t sure about the rules for determining the ends at which the all decisive penalties were to be taken, but there was a certain grim inevitability that, like in the Luzhniki Stadium in 2008, they would be at the other end.

I wasn’t sure if I should take any photographs.

I took a photo of Philip Lahm scoring past Petr Cech, with the other players, arms linked in the centre circle.

I didn’t take a photo of Juan Mata. His penalty was poor – too close to Nauer – and we fell silent.

I had my hands in my pockets, I was still stood. So here we go, Chelsea – another loss on penalties. How brutal this game of football can be. I consoled myself that at least I would not be as distraught as in Moscow. Nothing, surely, could be as bad as that.

Mario Gomez made it 2-0 to Bayern. The home fans roared.

David Luiz took a ridiculously long run up. Death or glory. I had horrible visions of his shot not only clearing the bar, but the third tier. His hair bounced as he raced towards the ball. Goal. A gasp of relief from Chelsea.

To our surprise, the goalkeeper Nauer took his turn and he scored to make it 3-1. I felt the weight of probability slipping away.

Frank Lampard simply had to score. Memories of all the others. Liverpool 2008. Go on Frank. Get in.

Frank scored.

Then it was the turn, not of Ribery, but of the substitute Olic. He looked nervous. I sensed that this could all change in an instant. Probability versus practice.

He still looked nervous. I sensed he would miss. A poor penalty was swatted away by the diving Cech and we were back in it. The whole stadium was on edge now. A tightrope. Sudden death. Sudden life.

Ashley Cole – a scorer in Moscow – was next up. The Chelsea fans were buoyant now. We sensed the momentum had changed. Ashley dispatched the perfect penalty.

Back in the beer garden, Gary had asked Michaela if Schweinsteiger meant “pig fcuker” but Michaela had dismissed this as a myth. It meant “pig climber.”

I didn’t care. I saw him place the ball on the spot and saw his Germanic features on the TV screen. In my mind I called him a pig fcuker. He again looked nervous. His approach proved this. He stopped, mid-run, and I again sensed a miss. His shot was hit low, but it hit the base of the diving Cech’s post.

Oh boy.

Advantage Chelsea.

The Nord Kurv, the watching thousands in the city centre, the fans at Fulham Broadway, in Malaysia, in Nigeria, in Australia, in Singapore and in North America were one kick away from glory.

Who else but Didier Drogba? It had to be him.

I got the call from Ed.

Arms were linked.

Alan linked arms with Glenn, who linked arms with Gal, who linked arms with Daryl, who linked arms with Neil, who linked arms with Ed, who linked arms with me, who linked arms with Steve in Philly, who linked arms with Mario in Bergisch Gladbach, who linked arms with Parky in Holt, who linked arms with Danny in Los Angeles, who linked arms with Rick in Kansas City, who linked arms with Walnuts in Munich, who linked arms with Tullio in Turin, who linked arms with Bob in San Francisco, who linked arms with my mother in Somerset, who linked arms with JR in Detroit, who linked arms with Dog in England.

I took a photo of us together; the magnificent seven.

I turned the camera towards the pitch.

Wide angle.

Approaching midnight in Munich.

Didier placed the ball on the spot.

A small run up.

No fuss.

Impact.

I clicked.

I saw Neuer move to the right.

I saw the ball go to the left.

It was in.

Pandemonium ain’t the word for it.

The Earth tilted off its axis for a split second.

We were European Champions.

In a split second I turned the camera to my left and clicked again; I caught a blurred mass of unreal and simply unquantifiable happiness.

It was no good.

I was overcome with emotion and I crumpled to the floor.

For what seemed like ages – it was probably no more than ten seconds – I sobbed tears of pure joy, alone in a foetal position.

A football position.

For that moment, I was alone with only my thoughts, my emotion, my journey, my life.

Seat 18 in row 10 of section 341 in the Nord Kurv of Munich’s Allianz Arena will always be mine.

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Tales From Munich : Part One – Petals From Heaven

Bayern Munich vs. Chelsea : 19 May 2012.

So, where does this remarkable story start? The story surely begins before the two magnificent games against Barcelona, but it obviously encompasses them. It begins before the Benfica games, too. Does it start with the come-from-behind game against Napoli at Stamford Bridge? Quite possibly. But, maybe the story begins with the exemplary Drogba-inspired victory over Valencia in the last group phase game of the autumn? This was a game that we had to win to progress; nothing like leaving it late, eh Chelsea?

Or does the story begin years earlier? The gut-wrenching defeat against Barca in 2009? The crippling loss on penalties to Manchester United in the rain of an unwelcoming Moscow night in 2008? How about the twin losses to Liverpool on two evenings at an obnoxious Anfield? Does the story start there? The ghost goal of Luis Garcia in 2005 and the penalties of 2007? Pain, pain, pain.

How about the semi-final defeat – almost forgotten these days – at the hands of Monaco in 2004? Or another loss to Barcelona at the quarter final stage in 2000 which was at the end of our first ever assault on the biggest prize in European club football?

In my mind, the story didn’t exist in 1998. In that year, Chelsea had defeated Stuttgart in the Cup Winners’ Cup Final in Stockholm. We had replicated the achievement of the fabled 1970 and 1971 teams by following up a domestic Cup with a European one. I can remember thinking that this would be as good as it would ever get as a Chelsea fan. Chelsea, my team of perennial underachievers, had no hope of the league title; we had reached our glass ceiling in Stockholm. League titles and Champions League triumphs were the stuff for ridiculous fantasists.

The story starts in 1955.

In that year, of course, Chelsea Football Club won our first ever League Championship in our golden jubilee season. In the following 1955-1956 campaign, the good fellows at UEFA organised the first ever “Cup of Champions” for the league winners in all member countries. The story could have only lasted nine months. However, the English Football Association – never the first to support innovation – strongly advised Chelsea to resist European glory and step aside from participation. We timidly obeyed the octogenarians of Lancaster Gate and did not take part.

So, in 1956, Real Madrid were crowned the inaugural European club champions and Chelsea looked on from a distance. In reality, our league season was a pale shadow of the preceding one and our participation might have been rather brief. However, even in those days, we always were a cup side…

So, the story is one which has lasted for 57 years. It disappeared without trace from 1955, but it re-emerged in 1999 and Chelsea has been besotted with the story ever since.

The Champions League.

The European Cup.

The Holy Grail of European Football.

Enough of the history lesson; this is my story of Munich 2012.

I was finishing off my packing – marking off items on the check sheet – when Glenn arrived ahead of schedule on Friday afternoon. His excitement was all too apparent. In fact, he was bursting. Glenn is my oldest Chelsea mate. I first met him at school in Frome in 1977. We were the only lads at Frome College in 1981-1982 who owned Chelsea shirts. I bumped into him in The Shed in August 1983 and our first game together was two months later, the seminal 4-0 thrashing of Newcastle United. We’ve been constant companions, from Sunderland to Seville, from Bristol City to Barcelona, ever since. For Glenn to be accompanying me to the Champions League Final in Munich just seemed right. And yet, we have another dear friend to thank. Parky was unable to travel to Germany and so gifted his match ticket to Glenn, for which he was eternally thankful.

We left my sunny Somerset village at 3.45pm and were soon at Bristol airport for the 6.20pm flight to Prague. We had a couple of pints apiece and bumped into Dave, from Bath, and three of his mates. Dave – or “Young Dave” as he is known in Mark Worrall’s excellent tales of Chelsea obsession – owns a restaurant in the city of my birth. To be truthful, I hadn’t seen him for about four years. One of his mates, Pav, was wearing a large home-made badge showing a photo of his late mother; she had sadly passed away six months ago. Although Pav did not yet have a match ticket, he was honouring his mother – a massive Chelsea fan – by travelling to Munich. He was confident he would find a ticket from somewhere. He was confident he would get in. I wished him well, but I knew deep down it would be a difficult task.

The flight to Prague typically contained a couple of stag parties. When a further hen party boarded, Glenn was all eyes and did his best meerkat impression. The flight was only ninety minutes in length and we landed in Prague at 9pm, a good thirty minutes ahead of schedule. I had arranged, via a work contact in the Czech Republic, for a taxi to meet us at the airport. By 9.30pm, Michael was driving us into the Czech capital and regaling us with current updates on the various football teams which hail from that gorgeous city on the banks of the Vltava.

Prague really is a hotbed of football; Sparta, Slavia, Bohemians, Dukla and Viktoria Zizkov all battle for domination. Michael said he was a Sparta fan, but then admitted that Viktoria was his first love. I couldn’t really work this out; how can you support two teams from the same city? Michael rattled through many stories about famous Czech players who have played in England and I was suitably impressed. He said that a lot of fellow Czech citizens favour Chelsea because of Petr Cech. There was a lovely aspect to our one night stay in Prague. Way back in 1994, Daryl, Neil and I travelled to Prague for Chelsea’s first ever European away game since Atvidaberg in 1971. Twenty-three years of hurt indeed. We played the city’s poor relations, Viktoria, in the return leg of the tie having won 4-2 at a rainy Stamford Bridge. Never had 22,000 made more noise at The Bridge. Due to concerns about possible crowd trouble, however, the second leg was played up in the hills of Bohemia in the small town of Jablonec. Dmitri Kharine saved a penalty and we drew 0-0. Our Euro adventure was on its way…and we all said we would love to one day return to Prague.

Eighteen years later, I was back. We zipped past Sparta’s Letna Stadium and Michael deposited us at Hotel Belvedere bang on 10pm. He had also arranged for his brother-in-law to collect us in the morning. We stumbled across a gorgeous local restaurant. For an hour, we sunk a couple of dark Czech beers, chatted about Chelsea and devoured some fantastic local fare. Pickled sausages, cheese sticks and then goulash with herby potato cakes. It was heavenly. Glenn had visited Prague way back in 1996 with his then German girlfriend Anke. He too was so pleased to be back. I remember he had brought me back a Sparta T-shirt from that trip.

Alongside, four young locals were feverishly debating amongst themselves in the particular way that you sense only eastern Europeans can do. I imagined feverish words being uttered about political unrest in Poland, or maybe the agony inherent in a local artist’s sculptures or the latest sounds from the new ground-breaking underground band in Ostrava.

I looked at the girl as she vented her fury; she slammed the wooden table with her palm when making a point. And my mind wandered…

“No – you fool. Play Kalou on the right. Sturridge is a mere shadow of his former self. You are all idiots.”

We dived into a smoky bar, full of more students, more local beer, more animated chat. Glenn and I observed from afar. What a wondrous feeling to be so far from our home comforts, to be able to witness the lives of others. But to also be on the edge of our own particular date with destiny. After one last beer in the hotel bar, we retired to bed, with nothing but positive thoughts about Munich, about the game, about victory. It had been a perfect night in Prague but the fun was only just beginning.

I awoke at 5.45am and a quick shower sorted me out. Outside, we waited in the cool morning air for our cab to take us into town. The yellow Skoda soon arrived and the tall cabbie spoke;

“Chris Chelsea?”

We were on our way to the train station where we were to catch the coach to Munich. The city looked breath-taking. We shot over the river with the Charles Bridge and the castle on the hill in the distance. We soon reached our destination. The train station is grand, but antiquated and in needing of restoration. We caught the coach outside its flaking exterior at 7.15am.

The coach trip lasted five hours, but the time flew past. We chatted more intensely about the football than the previous night. The Czech countryside was a picture; not dissimilar to the rolling countryside of Pennsylvania or Georgia, with none of the hedgerows of England which make our patchwork of a fields so unique. We noted fields of solar panels; they put us to shame in the quest for new energy sources. The sun was shining brightly. The sky was cloudless. It was magnificent.

We called in at Munich airport en route to the city. Another little bit of my personal history to tell; way back in 1977, my first ever trip by plane was to Munich on a family trip to Seefeld in the Tyrolean Alps. 35 years on, I was travelling on the same road. We soon drove past the white supernatural shell of the Allianz Arena. I was all eyes. It looked superb. I was reminded how far out of the city it is, though; it follows the old American model of being located right on the outskirts of the city. After only five more minutes, we came out of a tunnel on the inner city ring road and the iconic roof of the 1972 Olympic Stadium was in view. Way back in 1977, the only thing I remember of that coach trip was the sighting, late at night, of those flowing lines of the roof which connects the sports hall, the swimming pool and the main stadium. I had watched the 1972 Olympics of Mark Spitz and Mary Peters, the 1974 World Cup of Gerd Muller and Paul Breitner; the sight of the stadium made me gulp in 1977. It made me gulp in 2012, too. I love this stadium, although it is now considered out-dated, with its canopy roof, based on Bedouin tents. Of course, a few hundred yards north, several Israeli athletes had been killed during the siege in that Olympics.

My first real visit to Munich took place in the summer of 1985 during my first traipse around Europe as a backpacking student. The most vivid memory from that stay was my visit to the nearby Dachau concentration camp; the three hours I spent there were both surreal and shocking, the scale of the camp was awful and the photographs will be etched on my mind forever. The four or five Chelsea fans I saw in Barcelona singing about Spurs and Auschwitz and grunting “seig heils” should be forced to visit Dachau and to feel the pain that I felt on that blisteringly hot August day 27 years ago. On that visit to Munich, I also visited the Olympic Park in the northern suburbs; it was wonderful to see up close those wonderful iconic roofs and the towering pylons. It remains one of the most amazing and aesthetically pleasing stadiums I have ever visited. I would soon be returning in 1987 on two separate adventures.

The first time was with two mates for Oktoberfest in late September; what a crazy night that turned out to be. Suffice to say, two friends and I caught a late night (very late night) train to Hamburg to get some “free sleep” only to wake up at around 8am with the train still in Munich. I still haven’t worked out the reasons for that, but I suspect the ever hospitable Germans had simply laid on that train as additional sleeping quarters for the hundreds of backpackers sleeping in the train station that night.

Later that autumn, I returned. After I left college, I part-paid for several trips around Europe by train by selling British football badges at stadia in Italy. I also sold around 60 at this very same Olympic stadium in Munich on a frosty day in November of that year. However, I did not have the required “reisegewerbekarte” (street traders’ license) and so was arrested by the local police. I was taken down into a police cell deep in the bowels of the main stand, sharing it with a neo-Nazi Bayern fan. I had made around £80 that afternoon and the police fined me £75. However, I think one of the police took pity on me (it was a classic case of “good cop, bad cop”) and he let me in to see the game for free. The game was Bayern Munich vs. Bayer Uerdingen and it happened to be Mark Hughes’ first ever game during his loan spell from Barcelona. I left the stadium £5 up on the day, my tail between my legs but with my third ever European game under my belt.

It was clear that the weather in Munich was going to be sensational. Outside, we spotted the occasional Chelsea fan, but the ratio was 50-1 in favour of Bayern. We alighted at the central train station – the Hauptbanhof – and soon deposited our bags in the left-luggage lockers; hotels could wait. I was last in the train station in 1990 after a great night at the Oktoberfest.

Glenn and I caught a cab to the Paulaner beer hall a mile or two to the south where several friends had just arrived. Our plan was to avoid the madding crowds of the central area – long lines at the bar, possible aggro – and stay under the shade of some trees in the beer garden of this old-fashioned drinking establishment. Daryl had even reserved us a table on the Thursday. We stayed here from 12.45pm to 7pm. It was simply magical.

Glenn and I joined the others; Alan, Gary, Neil, Daryl, Simon, Ed and Milo.

Blossom from the surrounding trees was falling on our little party and ended up in our glasses of honey-coloured beer, like petals from heaven. We chatted, joked and laughed for over six hours; it was, of course, the best pre-match ever. Moscow in 2008 was grim and inhospitable, the locals unwelcoming, the weather too. Munich, in contrast, was the complete opposite. The sun was warm, the sky blue. The beer was sensational. The city was the ultimate party town, the ideal venue for a Champions League Final. The smooth beer, 3.60 euros a go, was not too expensive either. At around 2.30pm we all had some food; for me, it was pork knuckle, potato dumplings and cold cabbage salad. It was so gorgeous that Glenn helped himself to it too, the git.

The chat was varied; internal politics at Chelsea and the scrum for tickets, the potential new stadium at Battersea, the antics of Gary, the increasingly inebriated Glenn. We toasted Parky – the absent friend – and he sent through a few texts as the afternoon progressed. It was the European away debuts for Ed and Milo – the Under Fives – and what a day for them.

But Alan was the star of the show, as so often is the case. He treated us to his usual arrangement of comic impersonations. Firstly, Richie Benaud, Michael Holding, David Lloyd – the cricket commentators – describing the antics of Gary the previous night. Then, Didier Deschamps as Rain Man –

“Oh yeah…I play Wednesdays…I play Wednesdays…Champions League is Wednesdays…oh yeah. No – not Thursdays…Spurs play Thursdays…they play Thursdays. Oh no – Malouda – OH NO OH NO!”

And then – his finest hour.

Alan as Frank Sinclair’s mother, talking about the time her son scored at Coventry City and promptly pulled his shorts down in celebration, spoken in Jamaican patois.

“My boy Franklin. He call me on the phone and tell me to watch the TV. He score a goal and he walk around bearing his backside. Oh my. I tell him I will lick his backside, for sure, bringing disgrace on the family like dat.”

By this time we were all roaring. We’ve heard this routine twenty times but every time it gets better and every time the tears start rolling.

On the coach, Glenn and I had been talking about Kraftwerk and their songs “Autobahn” and “The Model.” He played “The Model” on his iPhone and we imparted a little musical knowledge to the youngsters. Ironic really, since Depeche Mode often accompany me on my travels around England following Chelsea. In the heart of Bavaria, we loved hearing the electro beats from 1982 which no doubt inspired The Boys From Basildon.

“She’s a model and she’s looking good.”

Alan immediately provided the Munich 2012 version –

“Gal’s a model and he’s looking good. He loves his main course and he loves his pud.”

Ah – pudding. Four of us had a dessert of apple strudel. Bloody gorgeous.

The time was moving on. Talk of the football game was minimal though. I briefly mentioned that I wanted Torres to start but Daryl had heard whispers that Ryan Bertrand would be playing wide left. This surprised me I must say. That came out of left field. At around 5pm, I had a special visitor. My former workmate Michaela, and her partner Paul, had cycled the 20 miles from their home just to the north of the Allianz Arena to spend some time with us. Michaela worked with me in Chippenham from 2003 to 2007, but had been back home in Bavaria since then. It was lovely to see her again. There had been a call for the natives to dress in red and white on this most special day. Although they weren’t Bayern fans, they were suitably attired; Michaela in red, Paul in white. I spoiled things, of course; I was in blue.

A few of us – I forget who – ended the session with a solitary vodka schnapps.

It was time to move.

It was about 7pm and we walked north to the Goethe Platz U-bahn station. It was at this stage that I noticed Glenn was wobbling all over the gaff. He was impersonating a baby deer. The beer had clearly got to him. I passed over his match ticket and begged him to keep it safe. The streets were eerily quiet actually. Maybe the entire population of Munich were now ensconced in the central bars and the viewing parties around the city. Our subway train arrived and we piled on. With each passing stop, more and more fans squeezed on. We had been told that the journey was only around 20 minutes in length, but it actually took about an hour. We were pressed up against each other and it was pretty uncomfortable. At Marienplatz, the platform was awash with blue and red shirts. Inside our carriage, Chelsea outnumbered Bayern and we began singing a few Chelsea classics, just to let them know who we were.

At a few more stops, fans got more and more agitated as the space inside the carriage lessened. One parent cried out for space as a child appeared to be getting crushed. It was not pleasant. We had avoided the central area, so we had no idea how many Chelsea were in town. I sent out a few texts to a few friends, but our paths did not cross. The train moved slowly north, agonisingly stopping for minutes on end at more than one stop. The heat was sapping my energy. What I’d do for one last beer.

Eventually, we reached the final stop at Frottmaning. We assembled the troops together and ascended the steps. It seemed Chelsea fans were in the ascendancy. We were making all of the noise, singing all the songs. Some of the Bayern fans were ludicrously attired in lederhosen and denim waistcoats (very Stretford End 1977 as any Scouser will tell you) and I vented some scorn on them.

Ahead, the brilliant white shell of the Allianz Arena was way in the distance.

It was time for the long walk to immortality.

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Tales From The Chelsea And Juventus Fans In Leverkusen

Bayer Leverkusen vs. Chelsea : 23 November 2011.

This trip to the heart of Germany could not come quick enough. This would be my first trip to Europe for a Chelsea away game in around two years; the enjoyable jaunt to Atletico Madrid was the last one. A mixture of work commitments and lack of finances have contrived against recent trips. Additionally, there are other destinations which, if I am blunt, have not tempted me.

Others fancied a return trip to Valencia or an excursion to Genk in this autumn’s mix of games, but for me there was only one choice – Bayer Leverkusen. I booked my flight way back in August and gleefully counted down the weeks and days before I would be away.

There was an extra special dimension to this trip. My old friend – in fact, my oldest friend – Mario is now living in nearby Bergisch Gladbach and we had often spoken about meeting up should Chelsea play any of the nearby Bundesliga teams to his home city in the Champions League. I have spoken about Mario previously, ahead of my momentous trip to Turin with Chelsea in 2009.

“In June 1975, I stayed in the Ligurian resort of Diano Marina on my first ever family holiday abroad. At that time, I had seen Chelsea play three times at The Bridge and I was hooked. Relegation in May of 1975 hit me hard, possibly even more than the loss of my idol Peter Osgood to Southampton a month before my first ever game the year before. At the age of nine, my Chelsea life had already taken a battering. We had a great time in the Italian sun. My parents had visited the town back in the ‘fifties and had regaled me with stories of its charm. All well and good, I thought, but I needed a diet of football, even on holiday. I was aware of a few of the Italian clubs – I had recollections of a Juventus vs. Derby game being shown on TV ( 1973 – the Juve forward Pietro Anastasi stood out ) and I had bought a Juventus magazine on a day trip to Genova.

During the last few days of the holiday, we became friendly with the guy on the beach who hired out deck-chairs and pedalos. His name was Franco and his German wife Hildegard was often on the beach with their two children Mario and Sandra. I could not speak Italian and Mario could not speak English. But Mario owned a yellow and black plastic football and, for what seemed like hours on end, we played football at the water’s edge, the warm ocean lapping at our feet. I remember Dad even took a few magical seconds of us on cine film. I wasn’t a bad footballer, but little Mario, only six, was sensational.

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And so our friendship began. 

Our two mothers had swapped addresses and I was told to write to Mario soon after our return home. I still have the little postcard and a letter which Mario wrote back to me. I must have mentioned that I was a fan of Chelsea – of course! – but also a fan of Juventus and my favourite player was Franco Causio, the moustachioed winger. Mario replied that he too was a Juventus fan, but liked Roberto Bettega, the young striker.

I guess we had been so devoid of communication skills that this was not already established out in Italy.

So – Mario was a Juventus fan. Perfect. Over the next four years, our letters zipped across Europe as regular as clockwork. He sent me letters that were 100% full of Juventus results and news, often with Panini stickers illustrating his words. I did wonder what he ever thought of Chelsea, mired in the Second Division at the start of all this. I remember Causio and Bettega combining to defeat England in Rome in 1976. That match had extra resonance due to my friendship with Mario. How proud I was when Ray Wilkins became a regular in the national side. This was proof for Mario that my team wasn’t completely rubbish! Butch became a beacon of hope!

Throughout this period, Juventus were dominating Italian football, with players such as Zoff, Scirea, Gentile, Causio, Bettega – how those names trip off the tongue – Cuccureddu, Boninsegna, Benetti and the youngsters Tardelli and Cabrini. Juve were in their pomp. Chelsea, by the time I visited Diano Marina again, in 1979, were back in the Second Division and Wilkins was soon to be sold to the hated Manchester United. On that visit, Mario’s family presented me with a black and white striped cotton shirt, and I was proud to wear it. I have no doubt I took him some Chelsea things.

We visited Italy in 1980 and 1981 too, each time going back to the same town, but his father had since moved on to work at an expensive hotel, the Gabriella. During the 1981 holiday, we heard that none other than Roberto Bettega was to stay at the hotel…a few weeks later, a signed Bettega photograph arrived on my doorstep. Whenever we met up, Mario and myself played football and talked football. I bet it amused our parents. In 1981, I met Mario’s friend Tullio, a boy from Juventus’ city of Torino – and yes, you’ve guessed it, he was a Juventus fan too. I have a photo of the three of us, posing on the beach beneath a Union Jack. Sadly, on the 1981 trip, we were also to learn of the cancer that would cause much worry for Mario’s mother. In July 1982, with an Italian team containing six or seven Juve players, the team won the World Cup in Spain – and I was happy for my Italian friends.

The letters between Mario and me reduced over the next three years…but every now and then, Mario would send me a letter detailing his hopes for Juve’s new players. The 1983 European Cup Final loss to Hamburg hurt us both. Then, towards the end of my first year at college, I sat down to watch the 1985 European Cup Final between my Juventus and Liverpool. What unfolded over the next three hours would haunt me to this day. However, the sense of disgust and sadness could easily have been so much greater. Unbeknown to me, Mario had a ticket for the ill-fated neutral section ZZ adjacent to the Liverpool fans. Thank God, Mario had a lot of schoolwork that week – he was sixteen – and so mercifully did not travel to Brussels. Around fifteen members of his local Juventus Club all returned safely. 

That summer, I travelled around Europe on an Inter-Rail pass and spent ten wonderful days in Diano Marina. Tullio was there too – the days were spent sunbathing, playing football and I was invited back to Mario’s house for lunch and an evening meal each day. Hildegard, his dear mother, was still undergoing treatment for cancer and I will never forget her hospitality. Her smiling face will live with me forever, as will her willingness to make me feel at home.

Sadly, Hildegard lost her brave battle with cancer a few weeks before I visited Mario, Franco and Sandra in 1986. I felt the loss – their house missed her busy nature and her “good eats” translation of the Italian “buon apetito” before each meal. My friendship with Mario and Tullio went up a few notches over the next few years. I had a real wanderlust period after leaving college and was forever travelling around Europe on the trains.”

I last saw Mario, in his home town, in 1988. Well, as luck would have it, Mario now lives around 20 miles from Bayer Leverkusen’s stadium. After the draw was made, we soon spoke on Facebook about the game and I was so pleased when he offered me the chance to stay with him and his family for the three days.

Fantastic!

As the days crept past, Mario and I spoke more and more on Facebook and my excitement rose.

The Liverpool game on Sunday came and passed, work on Monday was endured and lingering last minute arrangements were made. Due to the very real threat of fog, I gave myself an extra hour to drive up to Stansted airport. I only had three hours sleep on Monday night.

Tuesday 22nd. November.

At around 1.45am in the very small hours of Tuesday morning, I was off.

Germany – here I come.

My trip to the airport went well. I was buoyed by a couple of cups of coffee and my mind was soon wandering, looking back on all of the other Chelsea European trips, looking ahead to the imminent new one. I painstakingly counted the number of previous games…Moscow 16, Rome 17, Madrid 18…Leverkusen would be number 19.

And this would be my fourth Chelsea game in Germany, after previous appointments in Stuttgart, Bremen and Schalke. I personally love Germany; a frequent visitor in the wanderlust years of my youth, I have visited it on many occasions. Great beer, tasty food, decent people. Superb.

As I drove around the M25, I remember thinking to myself –

“There’s not a bit of this I don’t like.”

The planning of the flights, the talk amongst friends of the accommodation options, the anticipation, the final sense of excitement, the car trip to the airport, meeting friends, the thrill of a new city, the beer, the laughs, the camaraderie.

Chelsea in Europe Rule One; it is often the case that the actual football often gets in the way of a perfect trip.

By 5.30am, I was sat in the airport reading the current edition of “CFCUK” when I heard my mate Daryl’s voice.

“Morning mate.”

Daryl and his brother Neil, plus a few other Chelsea friends, were on the same flight as myself.

Thankfully, the threat of delays due to fog did not materialise and we were soon in the air. Daryl, Neil and myself had been together on our first ever Chelsea away game in Europe way back in 1994 on that memorable venture to Jablonec to see the Viktoria Zizkov game. That was from Stansted, too. Remember, that was Chelsea’s first European away game since 1971. Rarely have I ever been more excited about a Chelsea game. Superb. We spoke of our vivid memories from that crazy two day trip. It is hard to believe that Chelsea is the same club now, with our support spoilt by constant exposure to Champions League footy year after year.

The flight only lasted an hour. I was sat next to Tim from Bristol and attempted to have a power nap.

We touched down at Koln-Bonn airport at 10.30am.

We strolled through the arrival gates and there was Mario, with his arm outstretched, greeting me after a gap of 23 years. Daryl and Neil were off to meet up with Alan, Gary and Rob in Dusseldorf.

Oh boy, it was superb to see Mario once again. He was wearing the Chelsea / Juve scarf I had sent him two years ago.

Mario’s lovely wife Gabi was waiting in the car outside the airport and it was constant chatter from all three of us on the twenty minute drive back to their house. Mario updated with news of their three boys – Reuben 10, Nelson 5 and Valentin 15 months – and it was just lovely to be chatting away after all so many years.

Back at Mario’s house, Gabi went out to collect Valentin from the kindergarten while Mario and I sat at the table, drinking cappuccinos and reminiscing about our childhood and the routes that our lives have taken since our last meeting twenty-three years ago. On that occasion, in March 1988, I had called in to see Mario, Franco and Sandra during one of my crazy months on the trains. I slept in the lounge of their house, on the sofa I think, and I can remember Franco fussing around me, making me a cappuccino and preparing some sandwiches for my onward train trip. Meanwhile I had a morning shower in a bathroom that stunningly looked out onto the Mediterranean Sea. It was a cold but supremely sunny Italian morning, with deep blue skies over the Med. It was a moment that I will never forget.

Mario spoke about his footballing career as a player with the local Dianese and Imperia teams, but also of a very promising career as a referee. Mario was always a better player than me and it came as no surprise for me to learn that he had enjoyed some degree of success in his youth. After he moved to Germany in 1997, Mario continued to play football in the regional leagues, but also continued his career as a referee. He told me that he was the linesman at a game which featured Rot Weiss Essen, a team that used to play in the Bundesliga, against the reserve team of Borussia Moenchengladbach. The attendance was over 8,000 and he told me the story of how his first decision of the match – an offside decision against the home team – was met with a massive roar of disapproval from a few thousand rabid fans behind him.

We laughed as he told me how noisy the crowd was.

The stories of football continued all morning and I realised that this was just so typical of what had happened on every occasion that we had met, from the ‘seventies through to the ‘eighties – two young lads consumed by football, by players, by personalities.

Mario also updated me with news of his father Franco – a Genoa fan – and his sister Sandra. Franco had been with Mario for the recent Leverkusen versus Valencia game.

Gabi returned with Reuben and Nelson, the elder boys, and we ate hot dogs for lunch.

In the afternoon, I walked down to the little village of Moitzfeld in order to take a few photographs of the local area and to have a few moments by myself. I was feeling weary as I walked back to his house.

Chelsea in Europe Rule Two; power naps are good. Very good.

We had a lovely meal in the evening and we then continued our conversations about our lives, our families, or friends and our jobs.

Mario opened up a few bottles of kolsch – the local beer of the Cologne area – and the talk returned to football. To finish the night off perfectly, we stayed up to watch the Serie A highlights on German TV.

Football. Always football.

Wednesday 23rd. November.

I was up at 8.45am and Mario was soon making me a morning cappuccino. He kindly volunteered to drive me into Koln. The weather was overcast, with murky low-lying clouds enveloping the trees which lined the autobahn into Germany’s fourth largest city. The blue road signs overhead reminded me of where I was; in the dreamy world of a Chelsea match day, it is easy to forget the location. The hard consonants of the local place names soon reminded me of my locale.

Bruck.

Kalk.

Buckheim.

Bickendorf.

On the twenty minute drive, Mario enjoyed telling me about his love of Depeche Mode and we exchanged a few stories of the band. I’ve seen them three times. He has seen them five times. At the first concert, way back in the small Ligurian coastal resort of Pietra Ligure, the lead singer Dave Gahan dried himself down with a towel and threw it straight at Mario, standing but three yards away. Although around twenty fellow fans lunged at Mario and tore it into twenty pieces, Mario still owns a strip from that concert a quarter of a century ago.

He has also seen them in Milan, Koln and Dusseldorf. The three concerts in Germany all took place during the pregnancies of his three boys and Mario clearly puts a lot of importance into this. They are easily his favourite band. All of the way through his dialogue, I was itching to tell him that Dave Gahan and Andy Fletcher are big Chelsea fans.

I looked over to see his reaction.

“Really? Chelsea fans. Oh. Great.”

Mario smiled.

“What about Martin Gore?”

“No – I don’t think he likes football”

It was my turn to smile.

We approached Koln and away in the distance were the twin towers of the massive Gothic cathedral, dominating the misty city skyline. As we crossed the massive Rhine, for some reason I was reminded of Philadelphia, crossing the Delaware River on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.

By 10.30am, I had said my goodbyes to Mario and was walking through the pedestrianized streets of the busy city centre.

This was my time. A few hours of solitary confinement. Echoes of days when I travelled around Europe on the trains and found myself in a new city. I aimed for the magnificence of the Dom and took a few photographs. We stayed two nights in Koln for the Schalke game in Gelsenkirchen in 2007, so it was a familiar sight. Nothing but impressive, though.

I spent an hour or so walking around the Christmas market and the shopping streets to the south of the cathedral. I couldn’t resist some German food; a tasty wurst with very peppery sauerkraut was just fantastic. I followed this up with a frothy cappuccino. I stood at a table, nursing the coffee, watching the passers-by, looking out for fellow Chelsea fans. They were starting to gather together in small groups. I had the first couple of glasses of kolsch in the Europa am Dom Hotel while I waited to meet up with San Francisco Pete and his mate Mike. A Depeche Mode song was playing and I thought of Mario.

I picked up the local paper and reviewed the previous night’s games. I looked up just in time to catch a sighting of an infamous Chelsea fan from the good old bad old days. He was grinning at the size of some steins in a nearby shop; his hair cut in the same style as in years gone by and was wearing a green bomber jacket and jeans. He was with a little band of mates. Hicky was in town.

Pete and Mike soon arrived and joined me for a beer. They had driven over by car. The next few hours were spent flitting in and out of various bars with a few mates. I met up with the newly-arrived Alan, Gary, Daryl and Neil – and then the Nuneaton trio of Neil, Jokka and Jonesy – but then sped off with Pete and Mike down to The Corkonian in the Altstadt to pick up Mario’s ticket from Cathy.

Chelsea in Europe Rule Three; the sighting of several police vans means that an Irish bar and some Chelsea hoodlums are not far away.

Plenty of faces there. In a quiet corner, I spotted that green bomber jacket. I bumped into Andy and Josh, the Californians, who had been in town since Monday. Michelle and Joe from Chicago were also in the bar. The Beltway Blues were basing themselves in Leverkusen itself, but most of the Chelsea were using Koln as HQ. I then back-tracked to the other bar on Am Hof for a beer with the boys. I was beginning to wish I could be cut into several pieces, like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, so I could simultaneously spend time with different groups of friends. Back amongst my mates, there was talk of the CPO, the shame of the 39th. Game, the way our club is going…the same old gripes and the same old moans.

We decamped into another bar for a few more beers and the chat continued apace. Good times with great mates. Jonesy spoke about the recently-departed Jim Lewis who played a part in our championship season of 1954-1955. Because of his amateur status, Lewis never received a penny in his Chelsea career, nor even got a suit, along with the professionals in the squad, to mark the championship win. Alan suggested that Villas-Boas should explain about Jim Lewis, playing in a championship-winning team without payment, to the team before the game. One suspects that several players would simply not believe it.

In search of food, we sped down to the Christmas market in the Altstadt – sausages on sticks for me! – and I then went back into The Corkonian to catch up with Andy, Josh, Joe and Michelle. Time was moving on and I had arranged to meet Mario outside the stadium at 7.30pm. After another tasty beer in Heumarkt, we quickly decided to take two cabs to the stadium. The price was 30 euros – no worries.

We bundled in the cab and we were on our way…Josh in the front, Andy and I in the back with another Chelsea fan whose name escapes me. Too many beers. Too many beers for Andy too, who had to take extraordinary measures while the cab was momentarily stopped on the autobahn.

We got to the Bayerena at around 7.45pm and Mario was waiting for me outside the away section. I thankfully had no problems getting my camera inside. Mario and I positioned ourselves centrally in the lower tier. Flags were draped over the top balcony. Josh had a great seat in the front row of the upper tier. Beth was a few rows behind us.

So, after 36 years of friendship, Mario and I were able to watch our first ever Chelsea game together. Bloody superb.

The Bayerena has been recently redeveloped. The team played in Dusseldorf while a new tier and a new roof were added. It’s a reasonable stadium, if a little anaemic. I found it odd that the hard core home support were located directly opposite us in a corner, rather than directly behind the north goal.

The Champions League flag was waved as the teams stood and the Champions League anthem was played.

Let’s go to work.

I was surprised that Fernando Torres was not in the starting line-up. After only a few minutes against Liverpool and with an away game with presumably space to exploit behind defenders, I was amazed that he did not start. Michael Ballack was wearing a facemask and I couldn’t help take plenty of photographs of him. Clearly Leverkusen is not one of Germany’s iconic sides, so I give Ballack credit in returning to one of his previous German clubs. Shades of Gianfranco Zola’s famous return to Cagliari. The first section of the game was a turgid affair. After about twenty minutes, with hardly a chance created, Mario exclaimed –

“Why don’t they want to play!?!”

On 38 minutes, Drogba burst clear down the right and slammed the ball over the bar, with other options available.

Mario’s reaction was classic –

“Mamma Mia!”

After a heavy intake of beer, it took me twenty-five minutes to realise that Jose Bosingwa was over on the far side in the left-back berth. I remember he played there against Lionel Messi in “that” game in 2009, but my addled mind could not work out why Ashley Cole was not playing. A shot from Mata for Chelsea and a header from Michael Ballack which rocked the crossbar for Leverkusen were the only real chances in the rest of the first-half. The game was warming up, but only slowly.

Soon into the first half, a cross from Daniel Sturridge was played in towards Didier Drogba. To his credit, he spun and just managed to evade the attentions of two Leverkusen defenders. Although he lost balance, he was still able to turn the ball in at the far post.

Get in!

From a few rows in front came a text message from Alan –

“THTCAUN.”

And I replied –

“COMLD.”

The Chelsea choir sang his praises and we began making a little more noise.

“Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way.
Oh what fun it is to see Chelsea win away.”

A Daniel Sturridge shot was our only goal-bound effort though and the home team had more of the ball. On 57 minutes, Herr Ballack did well to twist his body to attempt an overhead kick from twenty yards out which Cech did well to save. Soon after, another shot from Ballack was blocked by Cech. I thought back to the chance that Cech saved from Ballack in the first leg at The Bridge and it was quickly turning into a battle of the masked men.
On 65 minutes, a strong run and shot from Studge but the ‘keeper saved his effort.

The Chelsea choir was mid-way through a proud and defiant rendition of “You are my Chelsea, my only Chelsea” when Sam, out on the left, clipped a ball over for the substitute Derdiyok to head in, with the Chelsea defenders racing back to no avail. The goal was a blur, but our defence seemed to be completely stretched and out of position.

The mood now grew tense within the 1,500 away fans. A cross from substitute Malouda on the left found Drogba unmarked, but his weak volley did not trouble Leno in the home goal. In the closing moments, we watched aghast as a chipped corner found the head of Friedrich who somehow was able to rise unhindered amongst a cluster of blue shirts. The ball tantalisingly arched past the despairing dive of Cech and into the net.

The home fans roared and we were shocked into a stony silence.

There was no time to retaliate and we were defeated. After all of the losses I have endured as a Chelsea fan throughout the years, I should not have been too fed-up, but there was genuine disappointment that this latest game had ended in (self-inflicted?) defeat. Our defending for the goals was poor and we didn’t seem to have the determination and fight of previous campaigns.

To add insult to injury, only six players could be bothered to trudge over to us in the south-west corner of the Bayerana to thank us for the thousands of pounds we had spent in support of our team.

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Mario and I shrugged and slowly began our walk back to where Mario had parked his car. Unlike on his previous visits to watch Leverkusen, there seemed to be more traffic than usual on this particular night. A few sympathetic texts came in and Mario and I spoke of a few more childhood memories to keep the spirits up. We returned to the ‘seventies and ‘eighties, speaking of obscure Juventus players such as Domenico Marocchino, Guiseppe Galderisi and Pietro Paolo Virdis and more famous ones such as Liam Brady and Paolo di Canio. Talk of our childhood love of football proved cathartic and the time soon passed. I also did my best to explain to Mario about the SayNoCPO campaign of the past month or so.

On our return home to Mario’s house, we watched the Champions League highlights and we shared a few more bottles of clean and crisp Gilden kolsch.

Thursday 24th. November.

The last day of Chelsea trips are strange affairs. Trips usually take the form of –

Day One – manic beer guzzling, boisterous behaviour and bar-hopping, late into the night.
Day Two – sightseeing, nursing of hangovers, the match, more refined drinking.
Day Three – OK, let’s get home.

However, on this most atypical of Chelsea trips, I was quite content to make the most of my last day with Gabi and Mario. I awoke at 9am and Gabi soon made me bacon and eggs for breakfast. A lovely visit with Valentin to Gabi’s parents then followed, before we had pizza for lunch with all the boys. In the afternoon, Mario dropped me off at the nearby town of Bensberg while he returned to do some work from home.

I spent around two hours in Bensberg and enjoyed walking around the town’s shops, buying a Leverkusen scarf for myself (I always try to pick up a souvenir of our opponents on foreign trips), plus chocolates and cakes for my mother and Judy. At the top of the town is the castle – or schloss – which is now, typically, a top-end hotel. At the bottom of Schloss Strasse, I spent a while inside the local church, a lovely structure with superb stained-glass windows. It was with regret that I could not attend the wedding of Gabi and Mario in June 1999, due to lack of finances, so it felt right and proper that I was able – at last – to visit the church where they were married in 2011.

At 5pm, Mario took me to Koln-Bonn airport and we bade each other a fond farewell. Gabi was otherwise engaged with Reuben and Valentin, but young Nelson accompanied us on our twenty minute car ride. I can see the twinkle in the eyes of Mario’s dear mother Hildegard in the face and eyes of Nelson.

Mario dropped me off at Terminal B and I shook hands with little Nelson and gave Mario a big hug.

“Ciao ciao.”

It had been a fantastic time in Germany and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Our flight was unfortunately delayed, so I did some more shopping; pumpernickel, cheese, the usual suspects. Beth and Dave from Toronto were on the same flight home. We touched down at about 8.45pm and I was able to drop Beth off at the Prince of Wales pub at West Brompton just in time for last orders at 11pm. Ironic that for a few minutes, my journey home had taken me to within a mile of The Bridge.

I returned home, eventually, at 1.30am; three whole days of friendship and football.

Superb.

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